And so it ends. The lights were still on, but it was late, it was quiet, and they had all gone home. A few hours before, they’d waited in their thousands with fireworks and song, but the hope had died and they had left long ago. Some had even departed early, knowing it was over; not just the match, but more than that. Something deeper.
Valencia were beaten by Arsenal at Mestalla two days after Barcelona fell at Anfield, and for the first time in six years a La Liga team will not win a major European trophy.
Spain provides the venue for a final — Liverpool and Tottenham will meet on June 1 at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid ready to compete for Europe’s top club honours — but none of the finalists. England provides all four of them: both Champions League finalists, like Spain had in 2016 and 2014, and both Europa League finalists, like Spain had in 2012. It’s not supposed to be this way, or maybe it is. Maybe what was happening before was unusual, not this. But it’s different, that’s for sure.
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Only twice in the past 14 years (2008 and 2013) has a Spanish team not won either the Champions League or the Europa League. Madrid (four) and Barcelona (one) have won the past five Champions Leagues; Sevilla (five), Atletico (three) and Valencia (one) have won nine of the past 15 UEFA Cups/Europa League titles, too. This year, they’ll all be watching on TV.
Valencia were the last to fall on Thursday night, with the fans at Mestalla unable to resist, for their own sake and everyone else’s. Into Spain’s place step the English, they know. “Football knows no Brexit,” ran the headline on the front of the sports daily AS.
No country has produced all four finalists before — there used to be three competitions and six finalists, of course — and what they’re wondering in Spain is if this may be no one-off. If there is a belief that Madrid and Barcelona will be back, after hundreds of million euros’ worth of signings — perhaps including Eden Hazard, the man who scored the goal that took Chelsea through at Eintracht Frankfurt’s expense last Thursday night — it doesn’t entirely diminish the concern that this might be the beginning of a significant shift. Not least because maybe it should be; there’s an inescapable economic reality.
Perhaps what was remarkable was that they escaped it for so long.
On Thursday night, Valencia were defeated by two strikers who cost over €100 million between them. Valencia are not a poor club by any means, but they cannot compete with that. “It’s undeniable that the Premier League has an economic power well above [ours],” Valencia manager Marcelino said, “but we knew that and we have to compete with that handicap; that’s the way it is. Every English team, even those near the bottom of can double the budget of Valencia or any other Spanish club that’s not Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico. But we have to look at ourselves and that can’t be an excuse.”
Maybe not, but it can be part of the explanation.
What’s curious is that this has happened in a season in which the economic health of the Spanish league has improved, debts have reduced and spending has increased. The TV deal, centralised now and more evenly distributed, is bigger than ever before. And while Madrid and Barcelona are always a case apart, that economic gap has been a reality for a while: If now in Spain they’re asking — and they are — why English teams are dominating, it wasn’t long ago that they were asking why they were not dominating instead.
This year may be exceptional, certainly among those economically powerful teams: Madrid’s collapse was startling and Atletico had a 2-0 lead overturned by Juventus. Then there was Barcelona. Marcelino talked about the obstacles that stood in his team’s way, including exhaustion and injury. Sevilla’s exit still baffles, barely plausible, but in the end, Sevilla were unable to compete for the trophy they made their own. Their former manager, though, will. And maybe there is something in that. Not just in Unai Emery himself, but in what he represents, the process of which he forms part.
Emery, a Europa League winner three times in a row, in 2014, ’15 and ’16, will be in the final again this year, leading Arsenal. It is his record fourth straight. He hasn’t lost a Europa League tie since 2012: 18 knockout rounds, three qualification rounds and three finals ago. He likes to tell the story of how it was the Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido who impressed upon him the importance of lifting a major trophy.
“Do you know what it’s like to live a final?” Del Nido asked. “No,” Emery said but soon he did. In part, it was about priorities. That probably conditions Emery’s interpretations and that mentality has been brought to Arsenal, along with his expertise and application.
In October, at a conference held at the Spanish Football Federation’s base in Las Rozas, north of Madrid, Emery was asked why English clubs did not do as well in Europe as their financial muscle suggested they should. (Note how recent this was, and how swiftly the questions have changed). One of the reasons that such an important league had performed relatively poorly, he suggested, was the very fact that it was such an important league. There was something in the culture, he concluded, but that culture could change. It already was changing, in fact.
“There, the Premier league is first, Europe is second. And in the Champions League they have come up against Madrid and Barcelona — and recently, Atletico. Meanwhile, they didn’t find a place for the Europa League; it didn’t seem so important. It was too much of a sacrifice for them to take it so seriously; they didn’t fight for it,” Emery argued. “But the change in the UEFA rule four years ago, when winning the Europa League got you direct qualification for the Champions League, was important: that strengthened the Europa League.”
“And so, in the last three years you’ve seen Liverpool in a final against Sevilla, when they hadn’t qualified for the Champions League via the Premier League. The next year, Manchester United won it [over Ajax]. Last year, Arsenal tried, and they came up against Atletico, who are a huge competitive animal. So now the Europa League starts to be interesting — for the teams that need it. Burnley [who didn’t need it] played the qualifiers and were knocked out, and the same happened to West Ham.”
The change had come yet Emery also insists that the Europa League matters because it is a trophy, not just a ticket to the Champions League. And he said: “I have been telling them that it is important from the first day, because of the Champions League but also as a title.”
This was in October, remember. Seven months on and Arsenal will be playing in a final. So will one of the men sitting alongside Emery that day; Mauricio Pochettino, who began his career coaching at Espanyol but has since led Tottenham to the Champions League final, also pointed at the culture. “English players look at the league first; they leave the Champions League to one side a little, which means the Premier League is totally different [to Spain] in terms of demands, the fixture list,” he said.
“I struggled to understand that at first. It’s madness in January, the number of games you play. In England [because of the importance of the league] it’s hard to rotate on a Saturday for [a game on] Tuesday. We have detected the effect that has now: so many games, so little rest, the way it means you don’t get players in the best condition [by March, April]. We’re trying to control that, trying to get them to the key moments with more energy.”
Whether you agree or not, that was the perception from the inside. From outsiders inside. A new perspective was provided, a new view. Lessons have been learnt; they have also been imparted. And while there are many other elements, while fortune or fate plays a part — and miracles too — while the margins have been so fine as to be almost invisible, now both men have reached a final. With multinational English teams, this time.
It all suggests that the money alone was not enough; perhaps the money with the expertise was. The expertise, the luck, the collapse of competitors, the physicality. A shift in ideas and approaches; a shift perhaps in priorities, too. The contribution of foreign players has changed the Premier League; could it be that what was lacking, to change English experiences in the Europa League and maybe the Champions League too, was the contribution of foreign coaches? Is that why at last that economic advantage is being applied effectively? Look beyond these four, and you have Pep Guardiola (Man City), Nuno (Wolves) and Javi Gracia (Watford), too.
For some pundits in Spain it is an attractive idea, just as it is a concerning one; talent is departing not just on the pitch but on the bench as well.
The editorial in the sports daily AS last Friday claimed: “After our years of dominance, the Premier League claims its place with this formidable foursome, the causes of which are easy to identify. One: money. Their TV rights are worth much more than all the others. And another: they have spent years slowly rooting out the old guard of coaches, forged in an older football, guardians of a catechism that’s outdated now. There are few left and they’re doing badly.
“All four finalists have managers from outside England, just as Man City do, and they’re close to winning the league. England is finally got up to date.”
La Liga has been acutely aware of the threat from the Premier League for a long time. If it really is a case of them being up to date now, being better at the one thing they didn’t do so well before, that threat grows. It is legitimate to wonder if Spain could be left behind. But they’re not panicking, at least not publicly.
Marcelino was asked if that is something to fear. “No,” he said, “because last year there were Spanish teams; two years ago, the Champions League final was two Spanish teams.”
“This year, circumstances have brought four finalists from the same country for the first time,” Marcelino continued. “In Spain we have three big teams; the rest of us are on a level below that. Compared to the Premier League, too. But we have to compete. I think we’re closer to Arsenal than the result suggests. Sometimes you can think that economic power is decisive in football. I think it’s important — it gives you more resources — but it’s not definitive. Until this season there were Spanish teams in finals, when the English league has been the strongest economically for six or seven years.”
“It’s cyclical,” said Emery, underneath the main stand at Mestalla, where Arsenal had just given themselves the chance to win a third European trophy of their history and him the chance to win his fourth. “English football is in a very good moment in terms of teams, players, television [money]. Spain had Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico … they dominated those finals and now it’s us, and with coaches with a past in Spain too. We’ll try to enjoy it, fight for it. It’s not easy to repeat four English teams in the final.”
Outside, the Arsenal bus waited but no one else did. Valencia had been the last ones standing but it was late, it was over and everyone had gone home.